In these days when the American colossus grapples with scarcely visible assailants, many people feel nostalgia for the days of symmetric warfare: when two sides were more or less evenly matched and, after a good, clean fight, the best man won. That is certainly one possible inference to be drawn from the popularity of the swashbuckling historical novels of Patrick O’Brian. The gentlemanly wars waged by the navies of the European great powers seem like the antithesis of today’s ugly, asymmetric “war against terror.”
Today’s foe has woven himself into urban life, only to be revealed as a foe when he or his apparently harmless van explodes. The foe of the old wars at sea was elusive in a quite different sense—because of the vast emptiness of the ocean. Once spied on the horizon, however, he was not likely to be confused with innocent bystanders. At sea, the only collateral damage is to fish.
Today’s war has arisen from the very opposite of an arms race. Terrorists have found that primitive tactics like suicide bombing are the only way of hurting a power whose technological dominance of the battlefield simply cannot be matched. In the old days, by contrast, Britain’s naval lead, though substantial, was never out of sight. It was a perfectly reasonable strategy to try to build better, if not more, battleships than the British.
Robert K. Massie does not attempt to conceal his fondness for the good old days of sea power. Castles of Steel is the sequel to his Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, which took the story of the naval arms race between the two rival empires from its beginning in the late 1890s to the eve of war in 1914. Now, with the same literary flair, Massie describes what happened when the two great battle fleets at last confronted each other. He does so in a manner Patrick O’Brian fans will surely enjoy. The flap of canvas may have been replaced by the thunder of coal-powered turbines, the creak of wood by the screech of steel, and the crash of cannons by the deafening blast of high-explosive shells, but the essence of naval war seems little changed from the days of Horatio Hornblower. Engagements between the rival fleets are infrequent but spectacular. Much hinges on the ability of the rival commanders to locate and outmaneuver each other. Ultimate success depends on a combination of nauti-cal skill and what used to be called derring-do.
The latter is in especially plentiful supply in Castles of Steel. Captains refuse offers of rescue, preferring to go down with their ships. Entire crews disappear beneath the waves singing their national anthem. Men read Kipling’s “If” on the eve of battle. Captured officers dine with their captors. We are all familiar with the rude disenchantment that superseded such modes of behavior in the trenches. According to Massie, it was a very different story—indeed, a familiar …